With a sci-fi universe characterised by corporate cynicism and a cast of technologically enhanced characters filling the scripts, you’d think that games such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution and BioShock would be the natural touchstones for Syndicate. In reality, though, this isn’t the feeling that comes across when playing it, and it’s important to say that Syndicate fails to offer the same level of agency as these games.
Instead, it’s Left 4 Dead which feels like the more logical reference point, both because of the four-player co-operative mode and also because of the linearity in how players must tackle levels. Syndicate offers no chance for players to employ stealth or cunning unless it's mandated via heavily scripted moments of gameplay. This doesn’t make it a bad game, but it does provide a disappointing realisation for a title which feels like it has defended itself from criticism with the notion that it's more than just a linear shooter.
While the linearity may be an issue for some, however, let there be no doubt that Syndicate still presents itself with panache and style – it may not offer the freedom that we may have expected, but it compensates with more fundamental joys. Levels are gorgeous to behold beneath their mire of UI information, while weapons are varied, interesting and fun to use. Melee abilities and the breaching powers pile on top of this, making Syndicate incredibly fun regardless of anything else.
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If Left 4 Dead is the reference for the core of the gameplay, however, then it’s Mirror’s Edge and Mass Effect that are the most apt touchstones for the look of the game. The colour palette and architecture of the levels we saw presented a very utilitarian and fashionable vision of the future; one built out of concrete behemoths and bright neon lights, rather than the squat structures and leather of the original Syndicate.
The new presentation forms an interesting contrast to the original game in terms of implied tone too. Trenchcoats, face masks and wanton unfocused violence made it clear from the off that the original Syndicate was very much a dystopian adventure, but the aesthetic of the new Syndicate is much more sympathetic than this. Bullfrog’s version of the future was something to be feared; Starbreeze presents it as something to be cautiously envied, from what we’ve seen.
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Layered on top of this boiled-back and ultra-sleek world, however, is a plethora of digital overlays and UI information, much of it interactive and jostling for attention. The result is something that looks like a futuristic computer terminal from a Hollywood movie, but while it looks very shiny and impressive, it also makes Syndicate harder to decipher than you may expect. It’s a notably far cry from Starbreeze’s previous work too, such as The Chronicles of Riddick.
It’s still far too early to formulate any solid opinions on Syndicate, especially as we’ve only really been hands-on with the multiplayer component at the moment, but it’s already clear that it will be a game to watch closely over the coming months. While we can’t help but voice frustration with some of the finer details and the drastic changes that are being applied to the classic franchise, we admit that we’re tentatively excited about how the game may eventually turn out if Starbreeze can refine Syndicate a little more.
Syndicate is being published by Electronic Arts and is due for release on Xbox 360, PC, and PS3 in February 2012.